The Spirit Level revisited

In: Uncategorized

1 Aug 2010

The Spirit Level by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett is one of the most influential growth sceptic works of recent years. Its argument lies on many statistical correlations showing that, among wealthier countries, people tend to be off in more equal societies.

I reviewed the book for spiked back in March 2009 where I argued the book understood inequality in therapeutic rather than political terms. This follows an appearance alongside Pickett on the BBC Radio 4 Moral Maze programme back in March 2009 (see posts of 5 and 7 March including a rebuttal of my tentative arguments by Kate Pickett).

Since then several authors have written rebuttals of the Spirit Level while Wilkinson and Pickett have written counter-rebuttals. This post is an attempt to pull together some of the key references. Hopefully when I have time I will be able to revisit the debate myself.

On 22 July at the RSA in London there was a debate with Wilkinson and Pickett on one side and two authors of recent studies criticising them, Peter Saunders and Christopher Snowden, on the other. The debate can be heard here.

The critics focused on the alleged statistical weaknesses of the book. They accused Wilkinson and Pickett of cherry-picking data, focusing too much on statistical outliers, failing to take into account the particular problems of America’s black population (which they said account for a lot of the data anomalies) and ignoring the cultural specificity of the Scandinavian countries.

Wilkinson and Pickett strenuously denied the allegations. They claimed their choice of data was statistically rigorous and all the associations they pointed to held firm.

To follow the arguments in more detail these are the references to the key works referred to:

* Peter Saunders – Beware False Profits: Equality, the Good Society and The Spirit Level (published by Policy Exchange).

* Christopher Snowdon – The Spirit Level Delusion: Fact-Checking the Left’s New Theory of Everything (published by Democracy Institute / Little Dice). An extract published on spiked is available here.

* The counter rebuttal from Wilkinson and Pickett, along with related media articles by the authors, is available here.

Other interesting sources include:

  • Mind the gap, Boston Review, by Claude S Fischer. A critical review.
  • A critique by the Taxpayers’ Alliance.
  • A Guardian editorial which is positive on the book.
  • A review by John Goldthorpe, one of Britain’s best known sociologists, in the European Sociological Review (only the abstract freely available).

I would hold to my view that the key questions to consider are political rather than statistical.

Note: On 2 August this blog post was updated to add a more comprehensive link to Wilkinson and Pickett’s rebuttal to their critics.